Oh man, oh man, oh man. I have been putting this review off for as long as possible because I just have so few positive opinions about this season and I don’t want to have to recap the weird and awkward mess that was the plot. But I guess that’s what they pay me the boonbucks to do, so here we go.
Spoilers for the whole season below the jump.
The first half of the season happened so long ago that it feels like a fever dream, but I’ll try to recap briefly: the whole Savior family went to Neverland to rescue Henry from Peter Pan. They succeeded after much pain and Captain Swan shipteasing, and also discovered that Peter Pan was actually Rumplestiltskin’s father, de-aged. They returned to Storybrooke, but the threat had not passed; for the day to truly be saved, Rumplestiltskin had to sacrifice himself and Regina had to re-curse the town and remove Emma and Henry’s memories of Storybrooke.
The second half of the season was… meh. Hook appears in New York, interrupting Emma and Henry’s new idyllic life because something is once again afoot in Storybrooke. The first obstacle he encounters is that Emma has forgotten everything. This is quickly remedied with a potion, but Henry remains in the dark for most of the plot arc.
The problem everyone faces is this: after Regina cursed everyone, they landed back in the Enchanted Forest—only to discover that a new evil sorceress had taken up residence in Regina’s castle. Now, eight-ish months later, they’re back in Storybrooke with no idea how they got there, no memories of the previous eight months in Fairy Tale Land, and no idea who among them is the sorceress they had set themselves against when they’d returned home. Since whoever it is has been kidnapping people and turning them into flying monkeys, it’s kind of urgent that they figure it out.
It obviously turns out that the villain is The Wizard of Oz’s Wicked Witch, but how does she fit into the plot at hand? Well, it turns out that she was Cora’s illegitimate first daughter, more magically talented than Regina but cast aside as a baby—into the parallel universe of Oz, no less—when Cora’s past indiscretions threatened her chance at becoming royalty. Yep, I guess they finally decided that Emma’s family was big enough, so it’s time to start adding onto Regina’s. Zelena (that’s the Witch’s name) is out for revenge on her sister for getting everything she should have had, and arranges to steal from our heroes the ingredients she needs to cast a time travel spell: a heart, brains, and courage. Also, for some reason, the baby that Snow White is about to have. It turns out she has a major advantage on her side as well: Rumplestiltskin, who’s somehow alive again, and is under her control as she has his dagger.
Although they are able to thwart Zelena and save Rumple, Emma and Hook temporarily end up traveling back in time to when her parents met. In doing so, she accidentally keeps them from meeting at all, and is forced to stick around long enough to make sure they fall in love. She manages to do so without fucking up too much of the timeline, except for two small things. Firstly, when she and Hook return, they bring with them one of the prisoners the Evil Queen had had locked up in her dungeon. This person turns out to be Robin Hood’s long lost wife, Maid Marian, which really sucks for Regina, who’d finally found some happiness this season in a burgeoning romantic relationship with Robin. They also accidentally bring with them an urn that had been locked up in twenty-eight-years-ago Rumplestiltskin’s “shit that’s too weird or scary for even me” vault. The urn cracks open upon entry to modern Storybrooke revealing—you gotta be fuckin’ kidding me—a woman in an ice-blue dress with pale braided hair, who shoots a spray of ice onto the ground with magic and then stalks out of shot.
So that’s what happened plot-wise this season. I feel like my biggest complaint about the show remains that they started out under the premise that all the characters involved were from one fairy tale or another, but it seems like recently “fairy tale” has expanded to mean “any Western story with magical/supernatural elements that’s in the public domain”. If they had started out with the premise that they were creating a Thursday Next-esque universe where all stories had their own respective visit-able parallel universes, that’d be one thing, but they didn’t. I’d ask if it would kill them to maybe include some fairy tales that aren’t of Western/European origin, but I’m sure that would be just too difficult for the writers to deal with. Much easier to cherry-pick from any and all stories with cultural relevance to white people.
That said, you may have noticed that two people were noticeably absent from my recap. Yep: despite having ostensibly joined the Merry Men, Mulan has been conspicuously absent since the scene-that-might-have-been-queer. Robin Hood and plenty of other dudes clearly made it to Storybrooke, but out of pure coincidence the one person who didn’t (and whose absence is never even mentioned) happens to be the queer woman of color. Now, I know Jamie Chung is busy with another show right now, and I wish her the best. But if she had been a series regular instead of a sometimes-guest-actress, and if her plot had been given more importance in the narrative, maybe she wouldn’t have left OUAT. I’m just saying. Aurora is almost as absent as well, except for a brief cameo in the scene where the cursed Storybrooke-ites return to the Enchanted Forest.
My anger with this goes above and beyond shipping the two of them. Rather, it boils down to this: Once Upon a Time is a show about true love and the different ways that true love can be expressed. And yet, after three full seasons, all the romantic love the show has given us is 100% heterosexual. It’s twenty-fucking-fourteen, people. We’re well on our way to marriage equality across America (shout out to Utah and Indiana, who joined our century just this week) and OUAT, as a show geared toward more grown-up audiences, has a unique chance to queer the fairy tale characters we already know and love in a way that child-oriented Disney media probably won’t do for decades. We had hours of screentime this season devoted to Snow and Charming’s relationship alone, and that doesn’t even get into Emma and Hook, Emma and Neal, Belle and Rumple, Regina and Robin, etc. etc. One tragic story of queer love unreturned—really, queer love not even properly vocalized, just hinted at—is not representation and I won’t accept it.
Finally, obviously I can’t know what’s going to happen next season until it airs. But I can’t see the inclusion of a Snow Queen character who literally looks like a (not even very good) cosplay of Elsa as anything but a transparent attempt to cash in on the success of Frozen. The veritable copy-pasting of the character leaves me with two complaints: first, they apparently plan to include Elsa, Anna, and Kristoff in the storyline, so they aren’t just borrowing from the Snow Queen story, they’re borrowing from Frozen. Like, okay. I hope you can make that work. But the way they’re marketing their Snow Queen character is as a confident and dangerous villain, whereas in Frozen, Elsa is just a scared young woman trying to understand her own power. You can either have a villainous Snow Queen, or you can have Elsa, but you really can’t have both without fucking up both characters.
I’ve lost a lot of faith in Once Upon a Time this season, and I’m not sure how likely they are to win it back. Here’s a few suggestions for ways to make things better: Make Regina get to know Marian and fall in love with her too; she, Marian, and Robin can establish a happy polyamorous relationship, eliminating any need for petty jealousy and drama. Cast Kristoff as a PoC for the love of all that is holy (it wouldn’t hurt to make Elsa and Anna of color too; the Elsa we saw might have been light-skinned, but we never saw her face and they have snow in Asia too.) Beg Jamie Chung to come back and give Mulan and Aurora a long and rewarding romantic subplot. Make the Elsa character some flavor of queer instead of just being an allegory for difference. And last but not least, consider, if you will, a storyline that does not revolve around the shocking reveal that the villain is related to someone in the central cast. That horse you’re beating is deader than Neal.
That’s all from me, Truest Believers. What did you think of Season 3? Are you, like me, exhausted by the weight of how good this show could be if the writers tried a little harder? Do you think I’m full of shit? Hit me up in the comments; we’ve got plenty of time to chat before Season 4 airs.